Gear S2 3G review: Samsung's best smartwatch offers more than the Apple Watch

You have to give Samsung credit for not giving up on smartwatches and I'm pleased to see its latest model rises to the top of the smartwatch offerings.

gear-s2-first-5.jpg

I've tested, and purchased, a lot of smartwatches and even though I wear one every day, I still believe no one really needs a smartwatch. That said, if you are looking for a watch that stands out from the rest then the Samsung Gear S2 3G is the one.

As I mentioned in my Samsung Gear S2 first impressions, I've been on the hunt for my perfect smartwatch for a couple years. The Apple Watch is close, but the lack of GPS and self-contained cellular service keep it from perfection. These are both functions that are available in the Samsung Gear S2 and once again Samsung is beating Apple to the punch.

Special Feature

The Year's Best Tech for Work and Play

ZDNet takes a look back at very best tech stories and features of 2014.

Read More

I purchased a Gear S2 3G from T-Mobile about 10 days ago and have taken it out on four runs in my attempt to figure out if it is indeed the perfect smartwatch for me.

Five ways the Gear S2 3G is better than the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is Apple's first attempt at a smartwatch and it does a fantastic job as a first product. The Gear S2 is Samsung's seventh smartwatch since 2013 and is its best yet. Here are five reasons the Gear S2 3G beats the Apple Watch Sport Edition. The 38mm Apple Watch is $349 and the 42mm one is $399. The Gear S2 3G is priced at $359.99 from T-Mobile.

  1. GPS: A major limitation of my Apple Watch is the lack of GPS. This means I either have to carry along an iPhone or give up tracking the specific route details of my run. The Gear S2 3G includes a GPS receiver and two apps, Nike+ and S Health, that include GPS tracking support.
  2. Wireless carrier service: I purchased the T-Mobile version, but Verizon and AT&T also sell this model in stores. While I mainly purchased the 3G version for running safety, I'm finding the ability for it to serve as a secondary phone very useful.
  3. Water and dust resistance: The Gear S2 3G has an IP68 rating, meaning it prevents dust ingress at the highest solids rating and keeps water out in 1-3 meter depth. IP68 is nearly the highest level of dust and water resistance available.
  4. Stainless steel construction: The 3G model is available with a silicone band, but the body is made of stainless steel. The comparably priced Apple Watch Sport Edition is made of aluminum The stainless steel Apple Watch starts at a price $200 more than the Gear S2 3G.
  5. Rotating bezel: While there are two buttons and a touchscreen on the Gear S2 3G, a unique user interface consists of the rotating bezel. There is clear clicks/stops in the bezel as you rotate it and it makes for quick navigation as well.

Q&A experiences

I listed several things I wanted to check out in detail in my first impressions article and reader SMD79 asked some further questions I wanted to answer. Here are my findings after further testing with the Gear S2 3G.

  • Cellular service as a stand-alone smartwatch: I was surprised by the cellular performance of the Gear S2 3G. It has an integrated speaker that sounds great and callers stated I sounded loud and clear on their end too. T-Mobile hasn't yet rolled out its single number sync technology, but there is a slick auto-forwarding setup that works for both text and calls. When my phone and watch are not connected via Bluetooth, communications remain fully intact and seamless.
  • Bluetooth headset performance: I tested the Gear S2 3G with BlueAnt Pump HD and LG Tone Active headsets and both worked very well.
  • Run tracking performance with Nike+ and the ability to export that data to RunKeeper: Nike+ worked well a couple of times, but one time the app wouuld not get past the warning screen that I needed to connect to my phone. I did find a website that exported my Nike+ data to import into RunKeeper, but the GPS map data was not included. I also tried the S Health app for running and that seemed to do better, but all of that data is locked within the S Health ecosystem. I would love to see RunKeeper launch a Tizen version for use on the Gear S2 and if the smartwatch turns out to be successful maybe we will see such an app.
  • 3rd party applications: There is definitely a lack of 3rd party apps, compared to the Apple Watch and Android Wear. The core functionality is there and I personally rely on core apps more than 3rd party apps for my smartwatch, but Samsung needs to gets more apps available for the Gear S2.
  • Can I create a memo while running? I often have good ideas when I run and would love to record them: There is a native Samsung voice memo application and it even supports voice-to-text functionality. Voice memos are synced to your phone and sound great too.
  • S Voice performance: I could never get a custom voice launch phrase to work and the default phrase only worked about 25 percent of the time. It was far easier to just manually launch and then use S Voice. It works OK when launched this way, but is a bit slow. You also cannot create reminders.
  • Daily activity tracking: The S Health app works very well on the Gear S2 and I especially liked that my morning and afternoon walks to and from the office were automatically tracked as active walking sessions.
  • Sleep tracking: There is no sleep tracking support, which is fine since the watch needs to be charged up each night anyway.
  • Can I play music via a streaming service via the T-Mobile service on the watch? If so, which ones?: I was pleasantly surprised to see that Samsung Milk Music will play via a cellular connection directly on the watch. I didn't have the greatest signal so it was a bit spotty at times, but it's good to know that streaming is available if you don't have music downloaded and have a good cellular data signal.
  • How long does the battery last?: After the first day or two, I routinely experienced 12-15 hour days with 3G and Bluetooth enabled and WiFi and NFC disabled. I need to try a day or two with 3G turned off to see how much more battery life I could get, but at this time I am getting through a full day and into the evening with my current setup.
  • There are reports that the step counter is routinely low, as in 25% lower than other step counters. What's been your experience?: The first couple of days I did see much lower step counting than what my other wearables were showing, but over the last week the number of steps counted has closely matched those from a Microsoft Band, Fitbit, and Polar V800.
  • How well does GPS tracking work?: I never saw any kind of visual confirmation that GPS was locked in either Nike+ or S Health, but the results show that GPS worked well and closely matched the output from a Polar V800. I plan to use Nike+ more in the future because I can view all the data in a browser and export some of the data. S Health looks great, but I want to see Google Fit support and export functionality.
  • Many people will use this as a fitness band and go running with it. How does the music experience work when you're using the watch to play music? How does it work when you leave your phone at home and use the 3G connectivity?: Downloaded music played flawlessly with my BlueAnt Pump HD headset. You have much more control over what music syncs to your watch than you do with Android Wear as well. The Apple Watch only lets you sync one playlist, but the Gear S2 3G lets you sync multiple playlists. I was able to call, text, and send the quick SOS signal to my family while running.
  • What are your thoughts on the ambient light sensor and always-on watch face?: I kept the always-on watch face enabled and thus I could always see the time, although in a more limited view when in standby mode. I plan to test it with it off to see what the impact on battery life is, but I do like having an available time to view at all times so saving an hour or less may not be worth it.

Specifications

  • Processor: 1.0 GHz Samsung Exynos
  • Display: 1.19 inch 360 x 360 pixels resolution sAMOLED (s is for Super), 302 ppi, Gorilla Glass 3
  • Operating system: Tizen OS 2.3.1
  • RAM: 512MB
  • Water resistance: IP68 dust and water resistant rating
  • Storage: 4GB internal
  • Radios: Bluetooth 4.1 BLE, NFC, and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi
  • Sensors: Accelerometer, gyro, heart rate, barometer, ambient light, GPS
  • Battery: 300 mAh battery
  • Watch band width: 22mm
  • Dimensions: 44 x 51.8 x 13.4 mm and 50.75 grams

As you can see, the Gear S2 3G has specifications close to the newest Android Wear devices, with the addition of GPS and a cellular radio.

Hardware

The Gear S2 is available in dark gray and silver. I purchased the dark gray one and am very pleased with the form factor and construction. It's a full round faced watch and looks like a traditional watch with a modern twist.

The display looks stunning with vibrant colors and clear fonts. Around the display you will find the rotating bezel that is probably one of the coolest design features on the watch. While you can use the touchscreen to navigate, I personally enjoy twisting the bezel to and fro.

There are two physical buttons on the right side. An upper one serves as the back button while the lower one is the home key. The home key will also toggle between the apps screen and watch screen. You can setup the Gear S2 3G so that three quick presses of the home button sends out the SOS signal I will discuss in the software section.

There is a heart rate monitor postioned on the box of the watch. The bands are removable via a small clip, but there are customized for the Gear S2 3G. You can buy replacement bands and I have my eye on the Atelier Mendini black and blue band.

There is a microphone and a speaker on the Gear S2 3G. I lost one of my earbuds the other day and ran 2 miles back home just listening to my music play through the watch speaker. It was quite loud and clear, enough to provide me with a bit of a distraction from the pain of running in the cold weather.

Software

The Gear S2 3G runs the Tizen OS and I have to say I think it is a more polished smartwatch OS when compared to the Apple Watch and Android Wear. Notifications are easily viewable to the left of the watch face while custom screens are positioned to the right of the watch face.

A simple swipe down from the top gives you signal status, connectivity status, quick access to music and connectivity settings, quick toggle for sounds and your profile, and access to manual brightness settings.

A navigation screen with four buttons to access the app launcher, S Voice, Buddy page, and Settings is set as the first screen to the right of the watch face, by default. You can organize the apps in the app launcher either on your watch or on your phone. The apps appear in a circular format.

The Buddy page lets you add contacts to the screen so you can tap their round picture icon and then choose to call or text them. If you choose to text, then you are given three input options. One is for voice to text, the other is emojis, and the last is via keyboard. Yes, you can enter text via the cool onscreen keyboard and it actually works quite well for short messages.

There is also the option to use a canned pre-set message and you have the power to change those too. It's interesting to see Samsung present you with possible replies when messages come in and sometimes I find them perfectly appropriate and select them instead of using my own input.

There are a plethora of settings on the Gear S2 3G so you can set it up exactly as you desire. I especially like the SOS feature that provides serious peace of mind when I run. I can press the home button quickly three times and then have my GPS location and a short message sent to my designated family members, up to four people. They get the message, along with a link to their phone navigation program. I can also attach a voice note to this message. For just $5 per month added to my T-Mobile account, this peace of mind alone is worth having the Gear S2 3G with me when I run.

Pricing and competition

The Gear S2 3G is priced at $359.99 from T-Mobile, $349.99 from Verizon, and $299.99 from AT&T. These are all no contract prices, but I believe you must use the selected carrier for your service.

The lowest priced Apple Watch is the Sport edition at $349 (38mm) and $399 (42mm). Android Wear devices can be found from $150 to $400+ with many options available for the consumer. With the recall of the LG Watch Urbane 2, there are currently no Apple Watch or Android Wear watches with integrated 3G. The only Android Wear watch with GPS is the older Sony SmartWatch 3.

Contributor's rating

The Samsung Gear S2 is the best smartwatch that Samsung has created so far and I award it a 9.5 rating.

It has cellular data, Bluetooth, and WiFi so is fully connected at all times, it has GPS so you can track the details of your runs or bike rides, it lets you make and receive calls without a phone and even when paired with a phone, and has a decent number of apps. It will be a better device when Samsung Pay launches on it in 2016.

The ability to quickly send out a SOS message to family is valuable to me as I run different routes all of the time, I run in the dark during the winter months, and I am not getting any younger. The Gear S2 3G may be a good device for those with health concerns who may have a need to contact someone quickly in an emergency and since the watch is always on your wrist it is easier than trying to find a phone close at hand.

I have been disappointed in the S Voice performance and there are still a few bugs when you push it to the limits with multiple apps using the wireless data at one time. I think some of these things will be fixed with software updates and overall am extremely pleased with it. For just $5/month for service I plan to continue using the Gear S2 and look forward to iOS compatability and further application development.